Search-and-Rescue Group Sues FAA for Permission to Use Drones on Missions

Unable to settle out of court, the group has filed a lawsuit against the agency in Federal Court.

Gene Roberts with Texas EquuSearch's drone. Image: Texas EquuSearch

Last month, a Texas search-and-rescue team asked the Federal Aviation Administration for permission to use drones in rescue missions. Today, they demanded permission, suing the FAA in federal court over a cease-and-desist order the agency sent to the rescue group. 

In February, the FAA told Texas EquuSearch, a volunteer search-and-rescue organization that has used drones for nearly a decade to find human remains, that flying their drone on missions is illegal. The group is a nonprofit and does not charge law enforcement groups or families for searches, so it’s hard to cast them as “commercial” drone users, but that’s what the FAA did. 

In its initial letter to the FAA, sent in mid-March, the group asked that the FAA respond to its letter within 30 days. It didn’t, so the group is suing. They say that the FAA’s interference has had a material impact on drone searches. From the lawsuit, which was filed in DC Circuit Court: 

“Since the date of the Order, Petitioners have not operated model aircraft for purpose of search-and-rescue activities, despite several instances in which the technology would have been of assistance in their searches for missing persons. The Order has had, and continues to have, an immediate and significant impact on Petitioners’ day-to-day operations.”

Texas EquuSearch founder Tim Miller told me last week that the group was ready to take the case to court, and it looks like he’s putting his money where his mouth is.

“We’ll fight as long as I have to fight,” Miller told me, adding that he would potentially use the drone without FAA permission. Whether they even have the ability to restrict drone use is up for debate—a recent court ruling, won by New York lawyer Brendan Schulman, who is representing Texas EquuSearch, would suggest that they don’t.

In the lawsuit, Schulman notes that the FAA’s reasoning for calling the use of a search-and-rescue drone “illegal” stems from a 2007 policy notice, which is not legally binding. In that notice, the FAA attempted to ban the commercial use of drones. “Hobbyists” are allowed to use drones without restriction.

“Even if the FAA’s 2007 policy were somehow binding, which it is not, the operations conducted by the Petitioners fall outside of any restrictions articulated by the FAA in that policy… families are never charged for searches, whether they involve the model aircraft or not. The model aircraft operator is an unpaid volunteer,” Schulman wrote. “The distinction that the FAA now draws between Texas EquuSearch’s use of this technology, and that of a hobbyist, is entirely arbitrary and capricious, in violation of the Administrative Procedures Act and due process principles.”

The FAA has yet to comment on the lawsuit and has still not responded to Schulman’s initial letter. Don’t expect them to roll over on this one, however—the agency is appealing the earlier ruling that commercial use of drones is legal.